How to resolve tensions in your organisation
In our work at Meld, whether we are designing services - or increasingly designing organisations themselves - we are fortunate to be allowed the opportunity to talk to staff about the things that really matter to them at work.
Stakeholder research, where employees discuss how decisions get made, their definitions of success, and their frustrations with things that have been tried (or not) in the past, helps us understand the context within which they operate and in which their customers interact.
Through these conversations we can almost always start to articulate what we are hearing as tensions that are holding the organisation back from being able to move forwards towards their goals. These tensions often show up as:
Two or more things competing for priority, like cost-cutting vs service quality
For example, the public service (and many organisations) have progressively been reducing their staff numbers over a long period of time, whilst simultaneously pushing for higher service levels. The solution is often to look at the introduction of new or upgraded technology, whereas the problem is the constraints on human interactions between staff and customers
A change in an area of the business that is not matched by changes elsewhere
For example, sales targets for one team leading to increased volumes of work, clashing with quality levels and staff satisfaction in the delivery teams; or the shift to remote working clashing with a workplace culture predicated on face-to-face interactions.
We often find the brunt of these tensions can be borne by customers who plug gaps to compensate. Tensions can be especially stressful in high-stakes, high-impact organisations with limited resources, like disability, health and social services. For example, in our work in the disability sector, internal tensions about where to invest limited resources have led to carers using their own initiative, time and even resources to be able navigate multiple care services to make sure they are getting what they need, because their service organisation is struggling to orchestrate the services themselves.
The same can happen in contact centres, where staff are rescuing poor service experiences the organisation is yet to invest in. This leads to staff burnout, attrition and even lower service experiences for customers.
Resolving these tensions can be where our most valuable work takes place. So, how do we do that?
1. Understand what the tensions are and why they exist
We carry out stakeholder research using the same methods we do for customer research, but the questions we ask employees, executives, HR, technical teams, and customer service staff are very different to those we ask customers. By asking open, non-judgmental questions and listening carefully so that staff are comfortable to share what’s really bothering them, we can start to surface where tensions exist, why and what the impact is.
However, as Luke Williams notes in his 2010 book, Disrupt, a tension is not necessarily something that people will be able to call out for you.
“The challenge, however, is that tension points are usually hard to spot because the symptoms are easy to overlook. They’re not screaming for attention the way ‘real’ problems are...”
Often, it’s the things people will tell you once the interview has finished, something that’s niggling them, often something that they don’t expect to be able to change. Things like:
- Values alignment, for example different definitions of quality
- Should vs want
As employees share these frustrations, it gradually becomes clear to us as objective researchers that these are part of broader organisational tensions, which are often the result of:
- Strategic misalignment
- Outdated work practices
- Changing customer expectations
2. Clearly articulate and acknowledge those tensions
We see time and again that by listening to staff, acknowledging their frustrations, sharing what we’ve heard across the whole organisation, and showing how and why tensions exist can release the tension and serve as a monumental shift for the organisation, setting them on a new and exciting path that they all feel part of.
At the State Library of Victoria, we identified a number of tensions as the key drivers of stress within the organisation:
- The shift from a closed, research library to a public library;
- The change in their funding model and the resultant need to generate some of their own funding
- The shift to digital - a massive collection of digital publications, digital interactions, requests for digital copies of pages
- The shift away from being the custodians of objects to the connectors of people with ideas and information.
Articulating these tensions helped the team identify and understand why staff were struggling to adjust to the new demands being placed on them.
3. Facilitate collaboration to resolve the tensions
Often, simply seeing the tensions articulated in plain sight is enough for people to feel heard, to understand WHY they felt how they did, and to start to work together differently to resolve them themselves.
Using these tensions as a source of creative energy - leaning into the tension rather than avoiding it - helps the team to collectively work to resolve these competing organisational interests. Framing the opportunity in terms of “How might we do more of X whilst retaining Y?” or “How might we continue to do X whilst stopping Y?” can help make this explicit during idea generation activities.
"We often find the brunt of these tensions can be borne by customers who plug gaps to compensate.”
Before the stress lands on your customers or your frontline staff, make sure you understand the tensions in your organisation: What’s holding you back, and how you can work together to resolve them before your staff and customers have to?
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